October 1, 2019

IPCC Report Projects “Unprecedented” Changes in Ocean, Cryosphere Due to Global Warming

News Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

Author(s): Leila Mead

The 51st session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 51) adopted the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC), and accepted the underlying report. The SROCC assesses the latest scientific knowledge about the physical science basis for, and impacts of, climate change on ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems, and the human communities that depend on them.

The report also evaluates their vulnerabilities and adaptation capacity, as well as options for achieving climate-resilient development pathways. The report’s SPM, which the Panel approved line-by-line, aims to tease out some of the key findings of the longer report in such a way that policymakers can easily comprehend and use them.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin highlights that oceans and ice are an “integral and dynamic part of the earth’s climate systems,” as they cover more than 80% of the earth’s surface. The report underscores the urgency of prioritizing “timely, ambitious and coordinated action” to address “unprecedented” and enduring changes in the ocean and cryosphere. It also describes the benefits of ambitious and effective adaptation for sustainable development, and the escalating costs and risks of delayed action.

According to the report, global warming has already reached 1°C above preindustrial levels, with: profound consequences for ecosystems and people; a warmer, more acidic and less productive ocean; melting glaciers and ice sheets causing increased sea level rise; and coastal extreme events becoming more severe.

The global ocean, the report notes, has warmed unabated since 1970 and has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system, with consequences now visible in increased ocean acidification, stratification and loss of oxygen. Speaking at the press conference that launched the report to the public, IPCC Vice-Chair Ko Barrett said, “Water is the lifeblood of the planet,” and the world’s ocean and cryosphere have been “taking the heat” from climate change for decades, with “sweeping and severe” consequences for nature and humanity. She warned that changes to the ocean and cryosphere are forcing people from low-lying coastal cities to Arctic communities to “fundamentally alter their ways of life.”

The report also indicates that with any degree of additional warming, events that historically occurred once every hundred years will occur every year by mid-century in many regions, increasing risks for many low-lying coastal cities and small islands. Recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, for example, are a testament to this.

The report also explains that as mountain glaciers retreat, they are altering water availability and quality downstream, affecting many sectors, including agriculture and hydropower. Smaller glaciers in Europe, Africa, the Andes and Indonesia are projected to lose more than 80% of their current ice mass by 2100 under high emission scenarios, with adverse impacts on recreational activities, tourism and cultural assets. The report lists integrated water management and transboundary cooperation as opportunities to address the impacts of water resource changes.

The report further notes that ocean warming and acidification, loss of oxygen and changes in nutrient supplies, are already affecting the distribution and abundance of marine life in coastal areas, which has reduced global catch potential. In addition, communities that depend on seafood may face risks to nutritional health and food security. To counter this, the report mentions that policy frameworks such as fisheries management and marine protected areas provide opportunities for communities to adapt to changes and minimize risks to their livelihoods.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin analysis explains some of the more contentious issues that arose during the discussions, which revolved around the perceived political weight that certain references might carry under the UNFCCC, for example an insistent request by Saudi Arabia to remove reference to the SR15. It also notes that the SROCC raises the problem of a “temporal mismatch” between the effects of GHG concentrations in the oceans and the atmosphere spanning decades and centuries, and the short-time horizon and planning cycles of decision making under most current governance arrangements.

The SROCC was prepared by 104 authors from 36 countries, under the joint leadership of Working Groups (WGs) I and II, with support from the WG II Technical Support Unit (TSU). The report includes over 6,981 cited references.

The SROCC will contribute to the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 25) to the UNFCCC in Santiago, Chile, in December 2019. The report also precedes the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which will run from 2021 to 2030.

IPCC 51 convened from 20-24 September 2019 in Monaco, ending more than 18 hours after its scheduled conclusion. The meeting was hosted by the Government of Monaco and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.